Teachers Are Experts

For a little while I've puzzled over how to get more of my colleagues engaging in online learning and using Web 2.0 tools to share their tools and expertise. I know I've only been involved in educational blogging for under two years but my view has always been that if an ordinary, average teacher without any prior claim to fame (and only one recent step up the leadership ladder in twenty years of teaching) can use these tools and so quickly utilise them for my personal professional learning, then anyone can do it. So why aren't teachers coming online en masse and collaborating and sharing their obvious expertise?

I think I have been sadly mistaken. Two clues that I have misread the appeal of Web 2.0 tools to the average teacher have cropped up and are worth considering. Firstly, via John Connell, an article that bemoans the impact of Web 2.0 and foretells of a dumbing down of expertise pointing to Wikipedia and blogs as the proof of the new mediocrity of information. It's an interesting read - a clearly sympathetic article supporting a book that points out all that is wrong with participatory culture. It does smack of yearning for the good old days - when you just knew that the nightly news would tell the truth about the world, when knowledge was contained in the Dewey system and university professors delivered their lectures on their latest findings without question. John has continued to investigate this issue in further posts and Doug Noon's recent post pulls apart some of the associated implications with greater insight and intellect than I could possibly muster.

That article link was just part one of the puzzle, however. The second came from a response posted to a CEGSA "walled garden" forum on the topic of teacher engagement with Web 2.0 tools. I'd already posted, then John Travers responded, and then I chimed in again. Now the only people who can view this exchange are registered CEGSA members but the dialogue can only grow if others can be involved so those ideas and words have sat there dormant until last Friday. My question posed there (which I've posed before here on this blog) was this:

I gain so much professionally from my involvement in Web 2. What interests me is what is it that keeps others (teachers) from starting their own blog, creating their own wiki, putting their resources up for public access using a tool like box.net or even sharing websites they've found useful via de.icio.us?

I'll paraphrase John here as I haven't asked permission to officially quote but he pointed out that teachers are not comfortable with sharing ideas and opinions in such a public space. I then expanded those ideas in my next post:

John, your use of the word "opinionated" could be a bigger reason teachers (even those of us as young as 40!) come from the era of "keep your opinions to yourself" and it's hard to change a lifelong mindset. Our students have been told since birth to "express their point of view" and "have an opinion" by their families, the education system, media and society in general. Translate that to an online world and you have the MySpace Generation.

Another teacher then replied and again, I haven't sought permission to identify or reproduce that person's words but that response is what grabbed my attention.
Basically, the issue seems to be that most teachers have been raised to respect and seek the viewpoint of the expert. After all, the libraries are stacked full of books written by experts. It's why we pay money to sit and listen to experts like Marc Prensky and Jimmy Wales. It's why we buy books from well known authorities and why we invite keynote speakers to our conferences (even if they have the thinnest credentials related to the actual world our students are operating in). Educators still worship at the altar of the expert. As a profession, we have yet to grasp the fact that this new technology can give us the power to realise our own expertise. It seems that only the few with the self-confidence and cutting edge grasp of Web 2 tools are pulling the pedestal down to their level.

I welcome this tearing down of artificial pedestals that place some educators up in "expert" mode delivering their wisdom to the huddled masses. I want my colleagues in the classrooms scattered all over this parched continent to embrace their own expertise, and realise that sharing their collective wisdom is better than herding themselves into arenas of round tables with bowls of Crown mints to have the answers to our profession presented back to us in bullet points on Powerpoint. We say we don't want our students to look to us to be the "experts" in the classroom. It's something I prove in my classroom every day when I open my mouth. But we make liars of ourselves every time we elevate one person's "expertise" to gospel status - for sure, use these people in the spotlight as mirrors to our practice, but don't downgrade what we experience and know to be inferior to the expert's viewpoint.

Teachers are experts too.

If only we'd realise it.

Before the experts who don't have learning in their DNA tell us what to do next....

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12 thoughts on “Teachers Are Experts

  1. John Connell

    What I don’t get, Graham, is the idea that there was ever an era of ‘keep your opinions to yourself’ – perhaps it’s a cultural thing, different from country to country, but I have never felt any particular pressure to keep my mouth shut and go with the official conservative flow.

    However – and this probably goes completely against what I have just said – I do think there is a large ‘scaredy-cat’ tendency in the teaching profession. For example, in the education press in the UK (usually the Times Educational Supplement) there are often letters to the editor from teachers, bemoaning one aspect of the job or another, that are published anonymously at the request of the letter writer.

    What is it about this profession of ours that, on the one hand, creates such a culture of fear of speaking out openly and, on the other hand, promotes headteachers / principals / managers who are capable, and often happy, to see this oppressive state of affairs continue?

    Is the same true in other countries? If so, perhaps ths is the source of difficulty in persuading teachers of the efficacy of Web 2.0 tools – and perhaps John Travers is right after all!

  2. Doug Noon

    Some of the teachers I work with want to use web-based technologies to publish student writing – because they’ve seen my students’ work. But they don’t want to publish their own writing. When I asked one of them about this she said, “We’re not like you.” And I’ve wondered about that for months now.

    John Connell says that teacher reticence may be based more on fear than politeness, and to some extent I agree. Another possibility is that teachers (prepare for a huge generalization) might not want to think real hard about why they do things. In the past I’ve called it “soul searching,” which sounds kind of angst-ridden. But publishing a weblog does require a person to consider basic things like, “What should I write about?” or even more significantly, “What do I care about?” and even harder than that, “Why do I care?” and “Why would anyone else care?”

    In a workshop presentation I did, a teacher (graduate school student in a literacy specialist program) asked Why would anyone want to do this? We keep returning to that question, don’t we? What is it about us that makes this this practice valuable?

    In the long run, I’m left to wonder what the use is of helping teachers to learn about technologies that they don’t want to use themselves. I’m reluctant to do that. It would feel like showing non-swimmers how to teach swimming. I imagine the result coming out something like Mickey Mouse in The Sorceror’s Apprentice. I don’t think that just because we find it helpful, we should assume that everyone would.

    I really liked this statement you made, “As a profession, we have yet to grasp the fact that this new technology can give us the power to realise our own expertise.”

    For people who feel compelled to throw themselves into the soup, this is an excellent route to reflective understanding. But it’s not for everyone.

  3. heyjude

    Graham, I also welcome ‘pulling the pedestal down’, but as you have so correctly identified the problem (for Australia at least) it is more that position rather than open discussion that drives decision-making in many of our schools. I am interested in John’s comment – particularly because it gives me an insight into why Scottish education seems to break through the issues that we struggle with down-under. Surprisingly, given our ‘larrikin’ approach, there is a culture of fear in many schools and education circles. We have great teachers who are working with Web 2.0, but only isolated examples of schools who applaud their work! Web 2.0 clearly shows us which of the ’emporers’ have ‘no clothes’. Being in a leadership position has never meant that you are smart! There might not be a pressure to keep your mouth shut in Scotland, but that does not apply in OZ. Those who are lucky can get on with challenging traditional education practice, and enjoy working with the benefits of Web 2.0. The others will be regarded as being subversive rather than being innovative. The problem seems to be that the further up people go in the promotion ranks, the less tolerant they become of open discussion. The safe route then is to use other experts – however thinly veiled – to transmit messages because they provide a veneer of clever safety in promoting innovation. It is the grassroots teachers who make Web 2.0 work – not the leaders. (This is a radical shift in education). From my experience, even if leaders know what Web 2.0 is they don’t actually use Web 2.0 to empower their daily work and leadership in the way that a teacher does. Thanks to hardworking teachers, like yourself Graham, we can see how schooling can be transformed. Yes, I agree with your comment that “As a profession, we have yet to grasp the fact that this new technology can give us the power to realise our own expertise.” I would ring a bell of warning though…we need to ease ourselves into Web 2.0 and can’t push it faster than it is going right now. Why? Because unless we’re careful the next wave will be …..leaders using Web 2.0 to still get teachers to toe the party line! How can this happen you ask? Easy! It goes something like this…. “Do what I like, say what I like, don’t upset me, and you’ll get ahead mate”. Yes its out there, and its real and Web 2.0 won’t necessarily change anything. What will change everthing will be the students themselves and the teachers ready and willing to work with them in a Web 2.0 world.

    Love the conversation!

  4. Artichoke

    If only it were that simple Graham – when I feel like you do (which is often) I go back to Hodas’s 1993 critique on this, it must be good – so many others have copied his thinking since –


    For nearly a century outsiders have been trying to introduce
    technologies into high school classrooms, with remarkably
    consistent results. After proclaiming the potential of the new
    tools to rescue the classroom from the dark ages and usher in an
    age of efficiency and enlightenment, technologists find to their
    dismay that teachers can often be persuaded to use the new tools
    only slightly, if at all. They find further that, even when the
    tools are used, classroom practice–the look-and-feel of schools
    –remains fundamentally unchanged. Indeed, the last technologies
    to have had a lasting impact on the organization and practice of
    schooling were the textbook and the blackboard.

    What is often overlooked, however, is that schools
    themselves are a technology, a way of knowing applied to a
    specific goal, albeit one so familiar that it has become
    transparent. They are systems for preserving and transmitting
    information and authority, for inculcating certain values and
    practices while minimizing or eliminating others, and have
    evolved over the past one hundred years or so to perform this
    function more efficiently (Tyack, 1974).

  5. Neil Winton

    Hi Graham,
    I think you’ve highlighted one of the real dichotomies in using Web2.0 for teachers when you remind us that:
    “Our students have been told since birth to “express their point of view” and “have an opinion” by their families, the education system, media and society in general. Translate that to an online world and you have the MySpace Generation.”

    For too long we’ve told pupils to have an opinion, but weren’t really prepared to give them an audience for that opinion… suddenly with web2.0, we can — and often with quite remarkable results (see Christian Long’s blog for more info on this).

    The problem with wide-spread adoption of Web2.0 in classrooms is not really too different from the problems that have always beset education, namely a workforce that is all too often comfortable in the old dispensation. But they will eventually be replaced by more ‘modern’ colleagues who expect the tools to be in place… and in the meantime, the pupils are using them anyway…

    I’ve often felt that education as an entity is just too cumbersome and slow to react to change and new ideas. The irony is that in the past this has been on the basis of expense (“The new books cost too much”, “We’ve already spent time and money on implementing x, y, and z…”), but Web2.0 tools are effectively free so we begin to see the excuses for what they really are… excuses.

    I think we all just have to do what we can. In my own case, that means using blogs with my classes as a form of online jotter. Not particularly radical, or even imaginative, but it does mean that my more reticent colleagues can understand what I’m doing (especially when they realise that it means you can never ‘forget’ your homework again)… and ultimately, it is the thin end of the wedge!

  6. Alexander Hayes

    I could quote something from Plato or Socrates or heaven forbid Gardner ( maybe Holt ) here and look like a real twit. Or, point to something on YouTube that’s better evidence that life exists outside of state penitentiary’s disguised as walled gardens.

    Teacher’s IMO are no or any more expert than lion tamers jumping through their own fiery hoops for want of a ferocious beast that resembled something we once feared, shot and mounted on wall plaques for small children to wonder at.

    Teacher’s have been trained to ensure roll calls occur, mints are eaten amidst powerpoints being read to them by butcher-paper wielding shafilitators. Who else would sit in groups and be barked at for hours on end about learning outcomes, swimming carnivals, assembly, yard-duty and MSB ?

    It’s like most trades – you have to endure the fact that you’ll always have some red-neck pumped with far too much self importance proclaim leadership standing at the too-far-gone-too-care pulpit of knowledgeness inculcation.

    Then there will always be some idiot who thought that jamming the dunny up with newspaper was funny, or letting the Principals car tyres down after super-gluing up the locks.

    The difference is that our dumb arse musings will be on the web for a log time to come.

    For those of us that believe the internet will not go away.

    For those of us who actually consider the the only thing worth teaching kids is how to break the system that would otherwise render them mute and incompetent in the face of creative challenge.

    I’m no expert. I’m a learner.

    THEY call me a teacher.

  7. Joel

    This article really opened my eyes to something that I’ve been doing for years, but so few teachers I know really grasp.

    We constantly stress using technology in the classroom as an educational tool for the students. We have inservices and seminars on how we can use technology to teach.

    But most teachers are scared of technology.

    I graduated from college in 2002. What tools are available now that weren’t available 5 years ago?

    Google News (2002)
    WordPress.org (2003)
    MySpace (2003)
    Gmail revolutionized webmail (2004)
    Flickr (2004)
    YouTube (2005)
    Google Maps (2005)
    And the list continues….

    Because of this, most teachers are unaware of the technologies out there. And even those who are aware don’t all know how to use them.

    What struck me today was that most teachers see technology as something they need to master in order to teach children. What I’ve done for as long as I can remember is to use technology as a learning tool.

    We all know that we teach children and we also learn from them in the process. What we seem to fail to remember is that we can teach them with technology and learn from them and it in the process. As Alexander said, “I’m no expert. I’m a learner. THEY call me a teacher.”

    Great words.

  8. Tim Holt

    Interesting read. Thanks
    I think a major point in the entire discussion about Web 2.0 is fisrt figuring out who is using the Web 1.0, or technology at all!

    We have a terrible time just getting people on the train, which happens to be moving, AND it happens to be picking up speed.

    Web 2.0?
    Heck, lets get them on Web 1.0 first!

    El Paso Texas

  9. Bill Kerr

    hi Graham,

    The notion of using “web2.0” tools to expand expertise (certainly possible IMO) is different from the notion of teachers already being experts. I try to avoid generalisations about teachers because in my experience teachers vary a lot in all sorts of ways.

    I could ask you what areas of your expertise have been enhanced, apart from web2.0 expertise, by your active participation in web2.0 technology? This might lead onto further analysis about what is really important about the web – that it is a superior medium – which is a different issue than expertise as such.

    I thought one thing missing in your post Graham was the disruptive effects of technology on School and many of our ideas, including our idea of expertise. I think it is the disruptive potential that makes the system and some teachers (many follow the lead of the system) hesitant. In the meantime computers are used in non disruptive, less interesting ways, eg. for writing reports

    The bible writing monks were experts at all things involved in being a bible writing monk. But that didn’t make them experts in all things involving printing. I wonder how many made the transition?

    The internet has certainly blurred the lines between expert and amateur. But as well as some amateurs displaying expert knowledge there are also lots of amateurs pretending to be experts when they are not. For me the important question is not web 2.0 as such but how do we work out who an expert is? Expertise is special IMO and ought to be valued. I’m critical of theories that just emphasise the importance of connection without saying much else.

    Here is an interesting post by clay shirky when he went along to a forum to criticise a book about “the cult of the amateur” and ended up saying that it made some valid points against some more one eyed blog evangelists

  10. Wati Wara

    “teachers are not comfortable with sharing ideas and opinions in such a public space”

    I notice that ‘Hey Jude’ has picked on this as well – FEAR. I have worked in adult education for a while and the one thing that really struck me was their fear, fear of doing something wrong, fear of pressing the wrong key and ‘buggering it up’, fear, fear, fear. What I had to do was show them a way that they could do things that had a ‘backup plan’ and then things started to happen…..slowly.

    Sooooooo, teachers are definitely not the only ones that feel this way. It is more an adult or old farts thing. I think that this reflects the fact that learning involves a state of vulnerability and this does not mix well with fear – simple as that.

    The environment that we try so hard to create for our learners needs to also be available to us teachers and for that matter all of us old farts.

  11. Judy O'Connell

    “For me the important question is not web 2.0 as such but how do we work out who an expert is?” I found this comment from Bill an important contribution to the discussion. Depth of expertise is still vital – if anything more so than ever! By collaborating we can learn together more quickly than in print-based environments – but underlying all this is the requirement for people to ‘plumb the depths’ as well as to engage in Geetha’s ever important slow learning approach. Perhaps if we used more ‘slow learning’ woven into web 2.0 teachers could become more adaptive more quickly.

  12. Graham Wegner

    Once again, the quality of my commenters outweighs the original post. Thank you all. A different perspective reveals which of my statements were made in haste – and this thread of expertise runs parallel to my previous discussions with Brett Moller on “what is truth?” Add “what is an expert?” to that and we do have shifting goalposts. I get where Alex is coming from when he reminds us that the goal is learning but I do think that individual teachers do develop expertise that can be and possibly should be shared beyond the boundaries of their own school. The development of expertise as something of value seems to resonate through the comments here but maybe we need to beware the self proclaimed “Expert”. I do agree that fear is a common denominator – fear of being wrong so let’s defer to the experts – that way it won’t be our fault.

    And in reply to Doug’s self imposed question, “Why would anyone want to do this? ” in reference to blogging, the quality of responses here from networked colleagues from anytime anywhere is my answer. I can’t sort through these ideas on my own.


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